Watching the ‘Toyota Halftime Show’ portion of NBC’s Sunday Night Football this past weekend, my father and I arrived at the point where the host introduces the latest installment in Toyota’s weekly Great Moments in Tailgating History series. At this point, my father turned to me and expressed his displeasure over the manner in which TSN, the Canadian carrier, has been depriving him of this part of the program. Having no special sponsorship agreement with Toyota, the Canadian sports network has been replacing the Toyota spots with generic commercials on behalf of its own advertisers. This dynamic is not so different from that of the Super Bowl telecast, which arrives in Canadian homes without the much-acclaimed commercials that have often come to transcend the game in their popularity in the US market.
This situation is notable because this is not a special telecast and the spots in question are not marked in the same way that most commercials are. In fact, these spots are promotional islands in the midst of an extended studio analysis segment that occurs prior to the game’s second half. The host announces the next feature and then with a ‘but, first’ he throws it to this week’s GMTH installment. The host and the analyst (the serene Tony Dungy) then stand by while the spot airs, and sometimes engage in a bit of post-spot banter about it. In this configuration, the spot is effectively part of the program. The fact that the spots feature only peripheral appearances by Toyota products helps them to blend in with their surroundings (the installments are typically narrated by three guys who take in the events from a parked Toyota SUV). The one-minute or so segments are very brief – unlike the standard three-minute commercial block, this promotional ‘interlude’ offers little chance for the viewer to escape. In addition, the fact that these spots are part of each week’s broadcast gives them a certain ‘event’ quality. To miss the spot is to effectively miss part of the program.
The GMTH phenomenon is significant for several reasons. It reflects a partial return to the foregrounding of presenting sponsors now that consumers are (allegedly) becoming savvier about avoiding ads. It is notable we should see this on SNF, which boasts the highest advertising rates of any regularly-scheduled program according to Advertising Age. The GMTH spots effectively provide NBC with the means to create an upper tier of advertisers through the integration of the content into the program. These spots do not actively sell Toyota products, however; instead, they merely place them within a larger segment of programming that is presented by the company. There is nothing particularly new in this, per se, but I think that these spots represent a particularly sophisticated example of this phenomenon, especially when one considers them as a group and takes their Internet component into account.
The GMTH spots work because they are short, thematically consistent with their programming context, unimposing, and effectively integrated into the program’s sequence of events. Of course, these factors would not matter if the spots were not highly entertaining. These are well-written pieces that grow out of a solid concept. They gently poke fun at the dedicated football fan’s rituals through parodies of the hyperbolically dramatic NFL Films flashback segments that overtly mythologize the gridiron battles of yore. When one examines these spots in conjunction with the campaign’s virtual component – a web-based ‘history’ book that allows readers to flip through material that complements the sixteen spots along with an addendum concerning several Toyota products – one can see that the creators of the ad are also engaging in a gentle parody of “history”. In this case, it is a parodic attempt to historicize the consumption rituals of the fans, who are marginalized in a world that privileges players, coaches, administrators, owners, and media personalities. These spots exploit the perceived ridiculousness of rituals constructed around chicken wings, giant foam fingers, and bare-chested fans, but they do so with a tenderness that undoubtedly allows some fans to identify with the characters in the spots, while others likely use the spots to distinguish themselves from the stereotypical pro football fan by laughing at the spots in a dismissive fashion.
Taking all of this together, we can begin see why my commercial-abhorring father should be chagrined at the fact that he is each week deprived of his GMTH installment. He senses that he is missing something that is worth seeing, even if it is a promotional piece that is only tangentially part of the program. This speaks to the effectiveness of this advertising device, which has undoubtedly helped NBC to increase the returns on its already-lucrative SNF property.
All that said, I would be remiss if I did not observe that my father’s frustration is also in part a function of the fact that TSN has no special spot of its own to air in place of the GMTH spots. As a consequence of the brevity of the break, he is forced to sit through a conventional commercial spot that has likely already aired several times during the broadcast. This is thus a subtle reminder of English-Canada’s marginal position in North American television. For fans of American pro football that happen to live in Canada, however, it likely recalls the frustrations of past Super Bowl telecasts. In those situations, however, fans can only wonder at what they are missing. Here, the awkward partial removal of the embedded sponsorship spot leaves a conspicuous absence in the middle of the halftime show. This is a terrible situation because the hardest thing for a viewer is often knowing what he or she is missing, even if it is an advertisement.
Toyota and NBC’s ‘History of Tailgating’ website:
This is not the most recent installment, but the ‘Bare-Chested Guys’ installment is representative of the campaign: